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Supa Fresh Students-turned-farmers sell their produce at Tualatin Farmers Market

by: Jaime Valdez, Callie Gerber, 18, of Beaverton (above), waters part of the “Supa Fresh Youth Garden,” while holding a small garden snake, Tuesday. Gerber is one of about 30 students who work at the farm as part of OHDC’s summer work program. A daisy grows in OHDC’s youth garden (left). Youth farmers also grow various plants and vegetables, which they sell at the Tualatin Farmers Market.

A few months ago it was nothing but weeds and blackberry vines.

Today? It's a fully functioning farm.

Tucked back behind Durham Elementary School, the small plot of land named 'The Supa Fresh Youth Farm' has provided local teenagers with a memorable summer experience.

Home to a variety of produce and flowers, the farm is the Oregon Human Development Corporation's summer work program, which provides teenagers with summer jobs and internships.

'This was really, really hard work,' said Mia Bartlett, a career specialist with OHDC's youthsource program, which oversees the farm. 'It looks as good as it does because of the hard work the kids have done.'

Traditionally OHDC works with working class teenagers in Tigard and Tualatin by setting up internships and summer jobs. But when the jobs dried up in the economy, Bartlett said, it was time to get creative.

'It's hard to find a job out there,' Bartlett said. 'Nobody wants to hire a high school kid when there are college students that are out of work.'

It was then that Bartlett stumbled across an abandoned plot of land behind Durham Elementary School. To the naked eye, it was nothing but a half-acre of blackberry vines, thick weeds, and dead trees. But Bartlett saw potential.

Over the last few months the youth farmers have transformed the land into a functioning farm, and sell their local produce at the Tualatin Farmers Market, she said.

'The focus of the farm project is about entrepreneurship,' Bartlett said. 'You won't always be able to find a job, and you might have to make one yourself.'

OHDC hosts classes with the 30 students who work on the farm to teach them the ins and outs of running a small business, Bartlett said, and the farm helps to reinforce those lessons.

'These kids were ripping out blackberry bushes that were taller than they were. These guys are extremely hard working. They've learned to take initiative,' she said. 'Everything is grown here and sold at the farmers market. These kids are getting sales and customer service skills.'

At first, Bartlett said, the students had little knowledge of farming, or even how plants grew.

'The first class we had was on how plants grow and where does fruit come from?' Bartlett said. 'Some of these kids didn't know that potatoes were grown in the ground.'

Today, after more than two months of working on the farm, Bartlett said that has changed.

'I overheard (one of the farmers) talking the other day about how compost works and discussing carbon to nitrogen ratios,' Bartlett said laughing. 'One kid started growing these special melons,' Bartlett added. 'He ordered the seeds, planted them, watched them grow and now every time he walks by he feels really good about them.'

Bartlett said the majority of the farm's funding comes from private donations. As a way to say thank you, the youth farmers have named their plants after donors.

'It's a way to honor those people who were so generous to us,' Bartlett said. 'Now when the kids are harvesting they see those names and they remember what these people did for them and they can say thanks.'

She points at a tomato plant growing in a pot.

'Over there, that's Jamie Thompson. I went to college with her, and she's really great.' She laughs. 'And it turns out, she makes really tasty tomatoes.'

Bartlett said that the farm has used most of the $2,800 fundraised so far.

'My biggest hope is that we can continue to do this next year,' she said.

Kiesha Evans, a 16-year-old farmer with the program, agreed with Bartlett.

'We worked so hard. All we've done all summer is work for this,' Evans said. 'I really hope we can keep doing this.'

If the funding comes through, Bartlett has plans to expand the summer project into a yearlong partnership with the school.

The plan is to grow pumpkins and other items for the school to use in classrooms, and lettuce and other vegetables can go to the cafeteria.

'I think it's kind of miraculous that we can make something and sell something out of just this little bit of land,' said Kaidyn Mathis, 16. 'It's really cool that we can use this land and give it to people in our community.'

The youth farmers sell their produce every Friday at the Tualatin Farmers Market, at the Tualatin Commons.

To learn more about the Supa Fresh Youth Farm, visit its website at www.youthfarmers.blogspot.com.